Event-full: Lessons Learned from MCHP Gatherings

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Community members converse in Bangor

Now that the kick-off gathering for each MCHP community has been held, attention turns to gleaning the collective wisdom of what happened at them.

What were the “best practices?” What might communities do differently in the future–say, in June, when MCHP websites are unveiled and presented to the public? How might MHS staff be involved in a more constructive way?

Let’s look first at what worked–and worked really well, in many cases:

  • Team Mobilization. Hey, it’s a lot of work to pull off a public event and everyone did it! Each team distributed the responsibilities in an organized fashion, some even designating a sub-committee to handle preparations. Logistics and set-up were well-planned out and carried off to a T.
  • Comprehensive Publicity. The call went out far and wide in most communities–to newspapers, email lists, websites, and other media. Printed flyers showcased historic photos and clever appeals.
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    Biddeford's MCHP Brand

    And most teams extended the all-important personal invitation–on paper, by phone, in person–to town VIPs. Some teams even went so far as to brand the project with a logo and name and unveil it on the publicity and handouts, like bookmarks, at the event.

  • A Festive, Foodie Atmosphere. Nothing says “Join us!” like the promise of good food and cheery surroundings. Given the season, some teams emphasized a harvest theme in decor and food choices. Tables were dressed with autumn colors. Cool-weather comfort foods like casseroles and chowders were provided at gatherings over the dinner hour.
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    Tasty desserts in Guilford

    At post-dinner events, coffee and cider washed down tasty cookies, fruit crisps, rich cakes, and other sweet treats — some made from recipes in locally-produced cookbooks. But most importantly, attendees were greeted at the door with smiles and warm welcomes, and made to feel like they were an important part of a communal celebration.

  • A+ Agendas and Professional Presentation. A lively and concise agenda, planned in advance and closely followed when the time comes, is the hallmark of an organized event. All teams had outlined how their evenings would go, and largely stayed true to that outline. Most involved verbal contributions by each team member (including students, in a couple cases) and some featured PowerPoints, slideshows, and sample school-based activities.
  • An Invitation for Feedback. In all cases, the audience was invited to weigh in–whether on project topics, community resources, and/or requests for volunteers.
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    Katie Murphy, at the podium, and note-taker Pam Ames, listen to a community member's comments

    In a few places this took the form of group conversation, and in the best of those, a moderator and note-taker kept the discussion flowing and fruitful. Nearly all communities utilized some kind of feedback method–from posters inviting comments about exhibit topics, to contact sheets and surveys handed out at the door. And plenty of informal conversations took place before and after the main event.

So, given all that great success, what’s left to be done differently down the road? Under the heading of “Lessons Learned” is the following:

  • Improving Turnout. This is a tough one because it’s not necessarily something teams have control over. While some communities got 40-50 or more enthusiastic souls in the door — the first to hold an event, Lincoln held onto the title with nearly 100 — others wished they’d had a few more bodies to warm the seats. Future tactics might include tapping into new avenues of publicity (including MHS doing more to publicize the events), getting notices out further in advance, offering door prizes, changing the date or time (if there is any evidence that was an issue), offering a more substantial meal, and inviting attendees to bring a specific community story or historic item along with them.
  • Fostering Rich Conversation (about Local History). While each community gathered useful information in some shape or form, not all made full group discussion a part of the evening. It wasn’t a requirement, but a captive audience of adults — who, on the whole, like to learn by interacting — is an ideal setting for rich verbal exchange.
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    MHS Assistant Director Steve Bromage (left) makes a point during discussion in Blue Hill

    The informalities of talk reveal emotion and energy that sometimes written feedback does not. Even in places that did solicit conversation, there wasn’t always enough time or space to delve deeply into the whys and wherefores of local history–to tell stories and pull on provocative comments like threads to see what they unravel. To a certain degree, that’s just a factor of time–you can’t do everything in 90 minutes. But it’s also a lesson for us at MHS. Perhaps in future events, the MHS role can be less MMN demo (or at least, placing that later on the agenda) and more ice-breaker conversation facilitation at the beginning. One possible question to get things going: “What defining story would you tell someone who had no prior knowledge of your community?”

  • Setting Goals and Objectives. How can these types of events best feed the MCHP goals overall–both at the team, and MHS, levels? Clearly, teams got a lot out of their evenings, but the above lessons are fodder for MHS to develop an even stronger structure for community gatherings in the future. We can do this by defining more explicitly what we expect everyone–including us–to get out of the evening.
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    Scarborough Team Leader Celeste Shinay elicits responses to the question: "What is the benefit of MCHP to our community?"

    In addition, when teams clearly define for themselves what they want to take away from the event, and structure their presentation to get it, success happens. Set a goal — even something as straightforward as community support and recognition — and tailor your objectives to meet it. This may be as simple as coming up with the right question to pose.

Obviously, MHS and all the teams met a great many goals by holding these events — not the least of was checking off the first major activity of the MCHP! — and we at Maine Historical are continually impressed and invigorated by all your hard work. We know many of you devote countless hours of  “spare” time to MCHP because you believe deeply in the project.

So, on behalf of everyone at the state level involved with MCHP, kudos for a great kick-off. And now… let’s go do some history!

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About mainechp

Maine Community Heritage Project at Maine Historical Society
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